Friday, July 29, 2011

Grow up! (a message to Congress, the President, and all the rest of us too)

The other day the mail brought an advertisement for something I desperately need (or so the ad suggested, though I can no longer remember what it was). If I ordered it right now, the ad said, I would save a hefty percentage off the usual price. In vain I searched the flyer for the price. None was listed - not the total, not my monthly payment. I was apparently supposed to place my faith in the kindly marketers and order it anyway.

I guess I should be used to this sort of marketing. After all, that's how our federal government does business. Shall we (a) fight a war in Iraq? (b) add a war in Afghanistan? (c) subsidize medical care for seniors and the poor? (d) rescue failed financial institutions? (e) subsidize growers of corn and soybeans? (f) fund interstate highways?

Yes! we've said, without ever bothering to consider the price of our purchases. Sometimes that's because we've been given no figures. Sometimes it's because the figures are completely off (consider, for example, the Iraq War, which turned out to cost over 50 times more than the Bush administration's original projections).

As we've ordered more and more stuff, we've been setting aside less and less money. And now that the bill has arrived, we're mad.

We must refuse to pay the bill! say some (which is what is meant by not raising the debt ceiling: see this fine analysis by Fareed Zakaria). Right - try that with your personal finances and see how long you keep a good credit rating.

We must stop ordering all this stuff! say others. Well, yes, unless we have a workable plan to pay for it - but do we really want to get rid of the military, reduce over half of our seniors to poverty, and allow our roads and bridges to crumble? Go to the NY Times's Budget Puzzle and see which cuts you'd be willing to make - and how your cuts would affect the deficit.

We must pay for what we get! say still others. That's the philosophy I learned from my parents, who lived through the Great Depression and two world wars. When America decided to fight in World War II, income taxes zoomed. In 1940 the average salary was $1299 (less than it had been a decade before) and the federal tax rate for the average worker was 4%. In 1941, the year Pearl Harbor was attacked, the average worker's tax rate rose to 10%. In 1942-43, it went to 19%, and in 1944-45, the two final years of the war, it was a stunning 23%. Americans of that generation used the word sacrifice a lot.

By contrast, in 2003, the year we attacked Baghdad, the average worker's tax rate was about 13%. In that year, President Bush lowered taxes for the second time.

Well, we had a good ride, buying more and paying less until we crashed into the recession. And now that the bills are due, we just don't know what to do.

Maybe it's time to grow up. If we've already bought it, we should pay for it. If we want it in the future, we'd better save up so we can afford it. If we need it right now and don't have the money, we must sacrifice.

Sacrifice means downsizing. It means going without things we'd really like to have. It may mean going without some things we genuinely need, so that we can get other things that seem even more important.

Instead of being willing to sacrifice, though, we tell our pollsters that we want all our social services to continue, but we want our taxes to be lowered. So our politicians, who want more than anything else to be elected, do what we ask.

We are about to learn what happens to a paedocracy: a government run by children.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

RESCUING REGINA by Josephe Marie Flynn

Here's a book you may not run across in your local bookstore (if you're lucky enough to still have one: my town has shut down Toad Hall, Barnes & Noble, and - now - Borders). My excellent public library does not yet have a copy.

Anis Shivani of the Huffington Post, however, listed Rescuing Regina among "The 20 Most Anticipated Books of Summer 2011." It is, of course, available at Amazon, where it is #5 of books about emigration and immigration and #10 of books about Central Africa. All five of its editorial reviewers loved it, as did all five of its citizen reviewers. One suggested it should be a movie.

That was my suggestion, too, in the review I've just written for Christian Century, and to which I will link once it is published and becomes available online. But that will not happen for several months, and you might want to know more about this book now.

Regina is a young woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who is gang raped and jailed because she has been speaking in favor of democracy. After she makes a harrowing nighttime escape to America, her husband (who has remained in the Congo) is jailed and tortured - also for being involved in a pro-democracy group. He too manages to escape to America. And here, in the form of America's grossly dysfunctional immigration system, the two of them face further trials. Stripped of the constitutional rights available to any U.S. citizen, Regina is once again imprisoned - and this time, death seems inevitable.

Note: Rescuing Regina is a true story.  The author, Sister Josephe Marie Flynn, is a Milwaukee nun who became the reluctant leader of a community effort to free Regina and send her home to her husband and two young children. You can read more about Sister Josephe, Regina, and the book here.

Note also: Rescuing Regina is not about political ideology. The story is about human rights, not politics. Sister Josephe is an old-school liberal, but many of the people who worked with her on Regina's behalf are right-wing Republicans. Regina's plight was followed by Fox News and by NPR.

Final note: Rescuing Regina is a suspense-filled adventure tale and courtroom drama. Summer is only half over, and you may not be in the mood to read a white paper on immigration reform. This is not that, thank goodness. Rather, it's an inspirational, heart-warming story about what individual heroism and community solidarity can accomplish, even against apparently insurmountable odds.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Five days to Harry Potter 7, part 2

Before our grandchildren could read, they listened to Harry Potter books. Their parents read to them. We read to them. Stephen Fry, narrator of the British audiobooks, read to them over and over.

Monday evening our now-16-year-old granddaughter arrives for a four-day visit. At one minute past midnight this coming Thursday, she will be with us at the grand opening of the final Harry Potter film.

As the preview says, "Every moment he's lived has led to this."

Fellow and sister Harry Potter fans - especially those of you who, like me, would rather read the books than analyze them - here are two intelligent articles about the books you might surprise yourself by enjoying:

On my other blog, The Neff Review, I just reviewed Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Parents, give thanks: there are no princesses in Harry Potter.

Friday, July 8, 2011


My daughters still make fun of me for one of my motherly quirks:  in the 1970s, I would not let them have Barbie dolls. To compensate, I gave them dolls from The Sunshine Family - a gentle suburban hippie couple and their tiny daughter, Sweets.

The Sunshine Family was not materialistic like Barbie. You could buy accessories for them, but they were things any impoverished young family might need, including a set of grandparents. They cared about the environment. They did crafts. They farmed.

They did not take the world by storm.

Princesses, by contrast, are huge. Bigger than Barbie ever was, though the grande dame of sexy dolls has pretty much given up practicing medicine (106 hits for "doctor Barbie" at and jumped into the royal coach herself (1681 hits for "princess Barbie"). Go to Barbie's princess website (dazzlingly pink!), and you'll be greeted by a perky electronic voice: "Shop time! A girl's just gotta wear a tiara!" That's the essence of Peggy Orenstein's complaint in Cinderella Ate My Daughter - not that playing princess is bad, but that the way princess play is being marketed to young girls raises all kind of red - or at least pink - flags.

Disney princesses, she writes, "did not exist until 2000. That's when a former Nike executive named Andy Mooney rode into Disney on a metaphoric white horse to rescue its ailing consumer products division" by producing toys, clothes, and other items to go with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, and, to a lesser degree, Snow White, Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas. The first year showed sales of $300 million; by 2009 sales had reached $4 billion.

And that was just Disney. Lots of other manufacturers took notice and started rolling out pink products too. When Orenstein visited the toy industry's largest annual trade show, she
lost count of the myriad pink wands and crowns (feathered, sequined, and otherwise bedazzled) and infinite permutations of pink poodles in purses.... The Disney Princesses reigned over a new pink Royal Interactive Kitchen with accompanying pink Royal Appliances and pink Royal Pots and Pans set (though I would have thought one of the perks of monarchy would be that someone else did the cooking). There were pink dinnerware sets emblazoned with the word PRINCESS; pink fun fur stoles and boas; pink princess beds; pink diaries (embossed with PRINCESS, BALLERINA, or butterflies); pink jewelry boxes; pink vanity mirrors, pink brushes, and toy pink blow-dryers; pink telephones; pink bunny ears; pink gowns; pink height charts ...
Well, you get the idea.

So, is this obsession with princesses really a problem, or is it just a harmless fad? Frivolous fun or regression to a pre-feminist era? Orenstein asks a lot of rhetorical questions as she looks not only at girls' toys but at beauty pageants for little girls, girls in children's literature, girl pop stars who quickly "slide from squeaky to skanky," girls' body image, girls online, and - the pink thread running through it all - how a certain version of femininity has become a marketing bonanza. Though her tone is light and often humorous, it's easy to see that she's worried. When she was a girl, it was an insult to call someone a "Jewish American princess." For her daughter, however, princess is a good word.

Trouble is, our little contemporary princesses are being taught that true love comes to those who are beautiful, and that beauty is the result of buying the right stuff. It was not always thus:
In her indispensable book The Body Project, the historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg wrote that for girls growing up before World War I, becoming a better person meant being less self-involved: helping others, focusing on schoolwork, becoming better read, cultivating empathy. To bring home the point, she compared New Year's resolutions of girls at the end of the nineteenth century with those at the end of the twentieth. Here's what a young woman of yore wrote:
   "Resolved: to think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversations and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others."
   And the contemporary girl:
   "I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can.... I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories."
If this is typical, I'm terrified. As Orenstein points out, narcissism scores among college students are on the rise even as empathy scores plummet. Four-year-old princesses today may be cute, but what happens when the workforce is overrun with 20-, 30-, and 40-year-old princesses?

Perhaps, though, the situation isn't as dire as Orenstein fears. I would never go so far as to say that someone in my family is typical, but looking at my teen-aged granddaughters gives me hope. When Katie was maybe three years old, she fell off an ottoman and broke her arm while playing Cinderella (it is risky, even for a princess, to twirl on an ottoman). Now 16, she picked up my copy of Cinderella Ate My Daughter and started to read. "Is it any good?" I asked.

"I dunno," she said. "I've figured out that being beautiful just isn't all that important."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What Margaret Sanger really said about infanticide and abortion

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger, founder of America's family planning movement, may be the most lied-about woman on the Internet.

Wait - I'll take that back. A lie is a conscious untruth, with intent to deceive. Certainly liars are involved with the mishmash of falsehood, half-truths, and logical fallacies relating to Ms. Sanger, but many honest people are now passing this misinformation along, sometimes embellishing it in the process. I believed some of it myself, though I wondered how a woman respected by so many in my mother's generation could be reviled by so many today.

So when I saw a copy of her Autobiography (1938) on a library bookshelf, I checked it out, found it fascinating, and reviewed it on my book blog, The Neff Review.

After I posted the review, a friend reminded me of a Sanger quotation that often shows up on anti-Sanger websites: "The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it." My friend told me that the sentence is from Sanger's Woman and the New Race (1920), so I immediately looked it up. Indeed it is there - at location 466 if you're reading it on Kindle - exactly as she quoted it. Margaret, I said to myself, what were you thinking?

To find out, I read the whole chapter in which the sentence appears (V: "The Wickedness of Creating Large Families"), and what Sanger was thinking became clear. Excessively large families, she argues, are the root cause of all kinds of evils: prostitution, low wages, child labor, war, the oppression of women, ill health, mental dejection, spiritual hopelessness, malnutrition, inadequate medical attention, crime, feeble-mindedness, insanity, child abuse, unchastity, and - especially - infant and child mortality. She quotes research showing that the likelihood of death before the first birthday rises with each additional child, reaching 60% by child number twelve - and, as she points out, many of the children who survive to age one will not make it to age five. Sanger is by no means advocating infanticide: she is using hyperbole to underline the unimaginably squalid conditions of the large working-class families she encountered in her daily work as a visiting nurse in New York tenements. "Let the day perish wherein I was born," wailed the suffering Job. "Why died I not from the womb?" The families Sanger served were equally miserable.

How can I know she is not advocating infanticide? Her second chapter is a history of infanticide - an extremely common practice from ancient times right up to the present day, though tending in modern times to be replaced by abortion. Frequently lumping abortion, infanticide, and child abandonment together, she calls them "abhorrent practices." "It is apparent," she writes, "that nothing short of contraceptives can put an end to the horrors of abortion and infanticide" [loc. 202]

Hold the phone - the horrors of abortion? Wasn't Sanger the founder of Planned Parenthood? Didn't she promote abortion?

Not in her autobiography, at least, written when she was in her late 50s (see page 217, for example, where she says that abortion, no matter how early in the pregnancy, is the wrong way to limit family size, because it is the taking of human life), and certainly not in Woman and the New Race. Quoting estimates that between one and two million abortions are performed each year in the United States - in 1920, when the population was only a third of what it is today! - she writes:
Apparently, the numbers of these illegal operations are increasing from year to year. From year to year more women will undergo the humiliation, the danger and the horror of them, and the terrible record, begun with the infanticide of the primitive peoples, will go on piling up its volume of human misery and racial damage, until society awakens to the fact that a fundamental remedy must be applied. [Loc. 218]
Sanger calls abortion "an abhorrent operation which kills the tenderness and delicacy of womanhood, even as it may injure or kill the body" [loc. 575].   "While there are cases where even the law recognizes abortion as justifiable when recommended by a physician," she writes, "I assert that the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed in America each year are a disgrace to civilization" [loc. 945].

Sanger was a Utopian visionary. In her view, widely available contraceptives would usher in a new age of health, happiness, and justice for all. War - the inevitable result of overpopulation and the concomitant search for new territory - would lose its raison d'être. Abortion would disappear:
When motherhood becomes the fruit of a deep yearning, not the result of ignorance or accident, its children will become the foundation of a new race. There will be no killing of babies in the womb by abortion, nor through neglect in foundling homes, nor will there be infanticide. Neither will children die by inches in mills and factories. No man will dare to break a child's life upon the wheel of toil. [Loc. 1695]
(Note to the suspicious: when Sanger writes of "racial damage" and "a new race," she is referring to the whole human race. If she ever favors one subset of the human race over another, it appears neither in this book nor in her autobiography, though by lifting certain sentences out of context and applying the usual 21st-century usage of the word race, some writers have portrayed her as a racist.)

OK, Sanger was mistaken. If her figures are correct, over the last century the number of abortions in the U.S. has remained constant (though, since the population has tripled, that represents a major per capita decrease). Despite the availability of contraception, says the Guttmacher Institute's most recent fact sheet, "nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion. Twenty-two percent of all pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) end in abortion." If you want to argue that contraception does not prevent abortion, Planned Parenthood will provide the statistics to back you up.

But being mistaken is not a crime. It's not even a moral failing, if a person is using the best information she has - and if she is careful to consider the information's source, literary context, historical context, and use of logic. It's mistaken, though, to accuse Margaret Sanger of promoting infanticide and abortion when she worked tirelessly to make both of those desperate measures unnecessary. And it's morally wrong to pass on such accusations without thoroughly investigating them, as a means of discrediting political opponents.

And anyway, why would pro-lifers want to base a campaign against abortion on misinformation? Why not just sweetly point out that Planned Parenthood's founder called abortion a horror and devoted her life to making it unnecessary?

Monday, July 4, 2011

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger, adored and reviled as the mother of birth control, published her autobiography in 1938 when she was 59 years old. Republished in 1971 by Dover, the book is still in print. I found it while browsing the biography section of the public library, and I thought I’d like to know more about this controversial pioneer. It turned out to be the most fascinating book I’ve read so far this year.

I know that some social conservatives despise Mrs. Sanger. One of her organizations evolved into Planned Parenthood, which is hated primarily because it gives women access to abortions and secondarily because it gives unmarried women access to contraception. In reaction, some have portrayed Sanger as a eugenicist of near Nazi ferocity, eager to improve the race through selective breeding, sterilization and murder of the unfit. They accuse her of aiming to exterminate people of color. They attribute her widespread support among African American leaders to a diabolical campaign of duplicity.

It’s hard to imagine anyone quite so powerful as the monster they depict, particularly if the supposed villain is a diminutive woman in an era when women did not have the vote and were barred from most influential occupations. Indeed, much of the book is a record of the obstacles Sanger faced as she struggled to help disadvantaged women learn how to space their children and produce fewer of them. She had frequent run-ins with Catholic prelates, of course. Time and again the police raided her headquarters, destroyed her property, terrorized her clients, and hauled her off to jail. Courts usually ruled against her. Congress repeatedly refused to consider bills favoring the distribution of information about contraception.

Yet nothing could stop the hundreds of thousands of women who wrote to her begging for help, and nothing could stop Sanger from attempting to provide it.

On “one stifling mid-July day of 1912,” Sanger, a public health nurse who worked in New York’s slums, had had an epiphany. A truck driver, Jake Sachs, had called a doctor to help his 28-year-old wife, who was dying of septicemia following a self-induced abortion. The young couple already had three children, and the wife was convinced they could afford no more. The doctor sent for Sanger, and for two weeks the two of them worked to save Mrs. Sachs. At the end she pulled through, but the doctor warned that another pregnancy would kill her.
“I know, doctor,” she replied timidly, “but,” and she hesitated as though it took all her courage to say it, “what can I do to prevent it?”
   The doctor was a kindly man, and he had worked hard to save her, but such incidents had become so familiar to him that he had long since lost whatever delicacy he might once have had. He laughed good-naturedly. “You want to have your cake and eat it too, do you? Well, it can’t be done.”
   Then picking up his hat and bag to depart he said, “Tell Jake to sleep on the roof.” [91]
Three months later, Jake Sachs again called Mrs. Sanger, who again rushed to their apartment. Mrs. Sachs died within ten minutes of her arrival. That night, Sanger paced for hours through city streets.
When I finally arrived home and let myself quietly in, all the household was sleeping. I looked out my window and down upon the dimly lighted city. Its pains and griefs crowded in upon me, a moving picture rolled before my eyes with photographic clearness: women writhing in travail to bring forth little babies; the babies themselves naked and hungry, wrapped in newspapers to keep them from the cold; six-year-old children with pinched, pale, wrinkled faces, old in concentrated wretchedness, pushed into gray and fetid cellars, crouching on stone floors, their small scrawny hands scuttling through rags, making lamp shades, artificial flowers; white coffins, black coffins, coffins, coffins interminably passing in never-ending succession. The scenes piled one upon another on another. I could bear it no longer.
   … I went to bed, knowing that no matter what it might cost, I was finished with palliatives and superficial cures; I was resolved to seek out the root of evil, to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the sky. [92]
In 1912, contraception was illegal. Doctors could not dispense contraceptive devices to women (though apparently they were allowed to give men condoms to prevent STDs). The Comstock law prohibited even speaking or writing about contraception. Somehow the rich knew how to get around those laws; their families tended to be of modest size. The poor, however, had no idea how to space their children or limit their number. As a result, many desperately poor women gave birth 12, 15, even 18 times, if they lived so long. The majority of immigrant and working-class children died before reaching adulthood, and the survivors were often malnourished, sickly, uneducated, and often brain damaged as well.

Today Americans rightly protest the cruel treatment of dogs in puppy mills. A mere hundred years ago, many urban Americans lived in conditions that were just as bad. And almost nobody dared to tell women that they didn’t have to have a baby every year, that they could limit their children to a number they could support. Nobody dared to provide them with devices that would enable them to have fewer births, but also fewer deaths and more surviving children. Almost nobody, that is, but Margaret Sanger and the people who worked with her.

Her story is more than a history of birth control in America. Much of it reads like a vivid travel memoir: Sanger visited many countries and recorded her observations and impressions. It is also a fascinating social history of the now almost-forgotten lifestyles and mores of the early 20th century. Besides, the book is fun to read: Sanger is a clever writer. She describes one newly married couple, for example, as having “little but love, faith, and hope to save them from charity.” Here is her one-sentence characterization of a lawyer she consulted: “The seeds of social service had been planted in him; his legal training only temporarily slowed down their growth.”

So what about Sanger’s supposed secret schemes of race purification? I found no evidence of them in this book. Some of her supporters were indeed eugenicists – people who thought that the mentally and morally unfit should be sterilized. That view was quite common until at least mid-20th century (my own evangelical parents said similar things) and Sanger probably shared it, but it was not her primary concern. The way she wanted to purify the race was to allow people to choose the number of children they bore, so that they could adequately feed, clothe, and educate their families. Then, she believed, far fewer children would be sickly, far fewer mothers would die in childbirth, and far more children would live to adulthood. In this way, she thought, the human race would become stronger.

Interestingly, some of Sanger’s views are at odds with the views of many Planned Parenthood advocates today. In October of 1916, she opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn. Women were admitted in groups to learn how to plan their families.
To each group, [she writes,] we explained simply what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way – no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way – it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun. [217]
Her pro-life views conflicted with those of a prominent German gynecologist she interviewed in 1920. When she opined that abortion was a ridiculous substitute for contraception,
the doctor rose, his chest sticking out; he buttoned his coat, bowed formally, and inquired, “Where did you say you came from?”
   “New York City.”
   “Are you sure you are not from France or Belgium?”
   “Certainly not.”
   “Nobody who has the welfare of Germany at heart could talk to me as you have this morning. Only enemies could come here to give such information [about contraception] to our women.”
   I wished he would sit down; he made me nervous. But I went on. “Why is it such an act of enmity to advocate contraceptives rather than abortions? Abortions, as you know yourself, may be quite dangerous, whereas reliable contraceptives are harmless. Why do you oppose them?”
   To my horror he replied, “We will never give over the control of our numbers to the women themselves. What, let them control the future of the human race? With abortions it is in our hands; we make the decisions, and they must come to us.”
   That was not the tone of this doctor alone but also that of most of his confrères. [286]
Margaret Sanger was, I believe, pro-life. She was also pro-choice. People on both sides of today’s culture war have a lot to thank her for.

It’s easy for us older folks to complain that the world is going to hell. Whenever I get in a curmudgeonly mood, the surest cure is to watch an old movie or read an old book and notice how people lived and how women were regarded back then. Sanger’s autobiography made me profoundly grateful to live in an era when women are, comparatively speaking, respected; when most children – even of the poor – survive to adulthood; and when the Constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech is taken for granted.